Why missing Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua and Hollywood star Robert De Niro have a stake in island paradise
Caribbean country’s cash-for-citizenship scheme proves win-win for all
Given the competition, missing Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua was never going to be a poster boy for one of the most lucrative cash-for citizenship schemes in the world.
But bagging that role was a cinch for a living Hollywood legend.
When the tropical eastern Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda launched a magazine to promote a citizenship-by-investment programme late last year, they chose Robert De Niro for the cover.
De Niro and Australian billionaire James Packer announced a plan to pump in a cool US$250 million, and for his trouble, the Hollywood A-lister was handed the title of special economic envoy by the country’s prime minister Gaston Browne.
More than a year earlier, in June 2015 as the cash-for-citizenship scheme was taking off, there was little fanfare when the same Browne conferred ambassador-at-large status upon Xiao.
The star power of De Niro was undoubtedly considered in the efforts to lure visitors and investors to the sun-kissed country of 365 beaches that bills itself as “the most beautiful place in the world”.
But it is almost certain that Xiao, operating from his Hong Kong hotel living quarters with a contact book dripping with high-net-worth individuals looking for a high-class bolt hole for their money, would pull in more hard cash.
Of the network of officially authorised agents for the scheme, many are based in Hong Kong and one even operates from the same International Finance Centre complex that Xiao called his home away from home. The missing billionaire was last seen at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel.
In fact, just short of half the applications since the programme launched in November 2013 come from Chinese nationals.
The scheme offers three paths to obtain an Antigua and Barbuda passport: a US$1.5 million investment in a business; a US$400,000 purchase of a government-sanctioned property project; or, the most popular route, a US$250,000 donation to a national development fund.
Successful applicants enjoy visa-free travel to 130 countries including the UK, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore. Applicants must maintain their investment for five years and reside in the country for a minimum of 35 days per year.
According to Antigua and Barbuda’s citizenship-by-investment unit, the rest of the applicants have hailed from the Middle East, with a small number of Europeans and Americans.
What is more, the scheme appears to have the tacit approval of President Xi Jinping.
In August 2014, nearly a year before Xiao became ambassador-at-large in paradise, Browne met Xi in Beijing and was congratulated on the signing of a series of deals.
That meeting came a month after Xi toured Latin America and during which he and leaders from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) established the China-CELAC Forum.
A Xinhua report on that Beijing meeting quoted Browne as saying that despite “great differences” between his country and China, theirs was a bilateral friendship based on “equality, reciprocity and mutual respect”.
The Antiguan and Barbudan prime minister was effusive, thanking the Chinese government for its “precious” support and pledging that his government would firmly adhere to a friendly policy towards China. It would also continue to back Beijing on issues involving its core interests and major concerns.
This initiative appeared to be consistent with an investment push by China into the wider Caribbean region, given the country operated a full-fledged embassy in the island capital St John’s – population 22,000 – and the United States does not.
But where there is serious money, there is always the potential for a serving of muck, and that came in the shape of Antigua and Barbuda’s former Ambassador to the UN and ex-UN General Assembly president John Ashe, who died in unusual circumstances in June last year.
Ashe was facing criminal charges in a bribery case involving Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng, who has high-level connections to both Beijing and Washington.
As well as members of Middle Eastern royalty , Sun Yinhuan, another Chinese billionaire and the owner of Yida Group, is understood to have already committed to building a US$1 billion mega-resort in Antigua. Construction on the massive 1,600-acre residential and commercial project, called Singulari, is to include marinas, homes, golf courses and the Caribbean’s largest casino.
The land was owned by disgraced Texan financier Allen Stanford, now serving a 110-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2012 of running a global Ponzi scheme.